Author Archive

Remember Senora Soledad?

April 9, 2012

She’s been immortalized! I met Senora Soledad in Oaxaca almost five years ago, and wrote up an account of my adventure learning how to make mole negro with her. A couple years later, I got this lovely email from Neal Erickson telling me what a wonderful time he’d had with Sra. Soledad as well.

And now, Soledad Ramirez is in The Atlantic magazine! The author, Grace Rubinstein, found me through the grace of Google. There is a small, selfish part of me that wishes I had written the story myself, but the rest of me is just happy that Sra. Soledad is getting the recognition she deserves.



Holiday Gift Guide for the Korean Food Lover & Cook

November 28, 2011

This is a totally shameless ploy for traffic but I couldn’t resist. And honestly, it can be a pain in the ass to get the right equipment and ingredients for Korean cooking, which means if you go to that extra trouble, you will be extra-appreciated.

Some of the items below are linked to Amazon. The others are linked to various other stores. Unfortunately, I’ve never ordered from them, so I can’t vouch for them. If you have a Korean grocery store of any serious size in your area, though, you should be able to find most of these items there as well.

Rice Cooker

A great cook should be able to make great rice with a pot and a stove, but when you’re juggling pots and pans on all four burners, it really sets my mind at ease to know my rice is cooking away perfectly, without a care in the world. I’ve never owned a super-cheap rice cooker, but I’ve been served good rice made with ones that look like this, and it’s still better than hovering over a pot on your stove.

If you want to splurge and get a gift that is hard to get yourself (if you are not me), it’s worth getting a fancy one that can make brown rice, rice with barley, rice with beans, etc. Zojirushi is the BMW of rice cooker makers, well-regarded and expensive. Somewhat cheaper, though still pricey, are the ones made by Sanyo. I can’t compare the two brands because I’ve never had a Zojirushi, but I cannot imagine living without my 10-cup Sanyo. 10-cup is better than 5-cup if you anticipate cooking for more than 4-6 people at a time.

Good Knife

As our recipe-testers have learned, Korean cooking requires a lot of knife work. All that chopping is infinitely more enjoyable if you have a good knife. There are others who can speak more intelligently about different kinds of knives, but for me, when you need to cut into giant Korean radishes and heads of Napa cabbage, the heft of a German-style 8-inch chef’s knife is the way to go. My mom bought me a Henckels knife similar to this one over 10 years ago and it is still going strong. That said, a knife is a very personal thing, so it might be best to get a gift certificate for $80-$100 at a nice kitchen store, and have the Korean cook in your life go and try holding different ones. This will also avoid the bad luck Chinese people believe you incur when you gift a knife.

While you’re at it, get a cheap honing steel as well, and if you’re feeling particularly generous, a knife skills class.


A mandoline is not an excuse for not developing knife skills, but man does it make your life easier! It will transform your feelings about making any sort of Korean salad that requires you to cut hard, rooty vegetables into thin matchsticks. The Benriner is cheap, sturdy, and does the job.

Korean Clay Pot

As much as I love a good dolsot bibimbap, or mixed rice and vegetables in a stone pot, the stone pot is not must-have home equipment since it’s really only good for that one dish. A clay pot is much more versatile. A small clay pot full of spicy tofu stew, or kimchi stew, or soybean stew bubbling away on the stove is really a beautiful sight. (Mmm, how about a lovely, jiggly steamed egg custard?) You don’t have to have a clay pot to make a good Korean jjigae, but it’s traditional and it’s practical since it means you can move the stew straight from the stove to the table. (Given how many dishes you have to wash after a Korean meal, one less pot is important!)

Large Wide-Mouthed Glass Jars

If you’re serious about making your own kimchi, you need some proper equipment. My mom says that kimchi made in a traditional clay jar, aged outside in the cold air of late fall/winter really does taste the best. That said, she uses giant plastic containers that fit perfectly into her kimchi refrigerator. I don’t make kimchi in such huge quantities, but if you’re going to make some, you should make more than a tiny jar for two reasons. One, the kimchi tastes better when it’s ripening in a large quantity, and two, it’s just too much work to do for so little output.

The containers need to be airtight. Plastic works fine, and I own a couple of big rectangular containers with lids that lock down. But glass looks better, and although I might be imagining it, I think it tastes better, too. I normally ferment two to three pounds of cabbage or radish at a time, and if I want to pack all the kimchi in one container, I need anything from a half-gallon to one-gallon container. These hermetic glass jars aren’t perfect, because the mouths are a little narrow, but they’re the best ones I’ve found so far in the U.S.. The 2.1 quart and 3.2 quart jars are probably most versatile.

Giant Bowl

It’s practically impossible to salt vegetables and add seasoning in a normal-size mixing bowl. I have a very broad, flat bowl that holds 22 quarts or so that I bought at a Korean grocery store for $15. It doesn’t fit in any of my cabinets so it sits upside-down on top of my refrigerator. It’s ugly, I don’t care. That’s how much I need it.

I have no idea what these bowls are like, or how reliable the online stores are, but it looks like restaurant supply stores are a good place to find 20-quart broad bowls if you don’t have a large Korean grocery store near you.

Plastic or Rubber Gloves

I find this image weirdly terrifying, and plastic gloves are the most unromantic gift possible, but they are so useful. I had a hell of a time finding them in regular grocery stores. I should probably just recommend that you buy a pair of rubber gloves.

Korean Ingredients

I can’t really recommend that you buy some fancy gochujang or soy sauce because even though the quality really matters, it’s not like you’re going to be able to find anything really special outside of Korea. Still, if you know someone who has no idea how to navigate in a Korean grocery store, it would be sweet to get a tub of gochujang and put a red ribbon on it! This was our favorite from our taste test. Other key condiments and pastes: doenjang or fermented soybean paste (this one is the same brand as our favorite from our taste test), Korean dark soy sauce, and Korean soup soy sauce. Maybe you could make a little starter Korean cooking set!

I would be pretty happy if someone bought me some fancy, expensive Japanese rice. Or if you want to be creative, how about a bag of black rice? If you add half a cup of black rice to 2.5 cups of white rice, you end up with gorgeous purple rice with a subtly new and exciting flavor. You can get a 2-pound bag for $8 at a Korean grocery store, or you can pay over $20 for 15 ounces of “forbidden rice” from Lotus Organic Foods. I am not pooh-poohing the organic stuff, which I have never tasted — it might be worth it!

Awesome Korean Mini-Series About Royal Palace Cooking

I lost a good chunk of my life to watching all 54 episodes of Dae Jang Geum, an epic Korean mini-series set in the 15th and 16th centuries. It follows a young girl who struggles between the need to avenge her parents’ death by becoming the Royal Kitchen Lady and the desire to follow her own dreams, including the possibility of romance with a young scholar who is so attractive, he looks good even in those traditional hats with the mesh screen across the forehead.

It’s melodramatic and riveting, with expansive scenes of hundreds of royal kitchen maids preparing elaborate and luxurious meals. The show was popular all over the world — just look at the names of the people posting to this Facebook group. (Serra Ozgiray, Paula Fernandez, and Devina Patel on the first page!) I think it actually says something about how universal her struggles are, especially to people in cultures that value collective traditions but who also yearn for greater individual freedom.

You can find it here, but do not only buy Volume 1. You will kick yourself when you get to the end of it and the next DVD is not ready to pop into the player.

Stocking Stuffers

If you don’t want to spend $100 on all 3 volumes of Dae Jang Geum, you could get a stocking stuffer or two.

Standing Rice Scoop

This is just genius. All nice rice cookers (see above) come with a little pocket on the side of the machine to hold the paddle. But if you don’t have such a wonderful machine, you end up putting the paddle down and the rice gets all over the counter. This standing paddle avoids the mess.

Japanese Grater

Most of our recipes call for grated, not minced, ginger. It imparts nicer and juicier flavor. I don’t own this one or this one, but I wish I did.

Chopstick Rests

Chopstick rests are pretty useless, but they can be so fun. I got these “peas in a pod” chopstick rests for Diane last year. As a Korean who loves Korean food, she can attest that she loved them!

The elephant in the room, of course, is the question, “What is the best Korean cookbook?”

Diane and I wholeheartedly hope and believe it will be available next year!

The bodice-ripping romantic hero of tofu

October 12, 2011

The Bridge: Firm, yet Tender.

(New tofu at my grocery store–it’s a little too firm for my taste, but the lack of moisture means it’s very easy to stir-fry.)


The advantage of August

October 6, 2011

August is not the best time to be in Rome. The sun still beats down relentlessly so that when you’re standing in the Roman Forum and your audio guide says, “Now, let’s walk toward the tomb of Julius Caesar,” you think, “No f*&king way.” And more importantly for us, many restaurants are closed for vacation. Technically, we were only there for the last day of August and the first week of September, but Italian restauranteurs are not so exact. One restaurant we were hoping to try had a sign up saying they would be open Saturday, September 3rd. When we tried to make a reservation, we were told, “Sorry, we’re actually coming back September 5!”

But there is one very good reason to be in Italy in August: summer markets. We were staying in an apartment right by Campo de Fiori and its market, which was described as touristy but to me seemed just sort of puny. There were many more people hawking T-shirts and dried pasta than actual fruits and vegetables. I did like watching vendors use the fountain as a giant public sink.

The market that felt much more workaday was the large covered market in Testaccio. These tomatoes, so uniformly red, were not very sweet, but they had a lot of tart flavor. If we’d had more time, I might have cooked them down into a sauce.

With all the pizza and pasta we were eating, I was eating mainly fruit for breakfast and snacks. I love plums that are a little hard, that you really have to bite into, but that yield very sweet, just faintly tart flesh. Italy has many different kinds of plums just like this, all with varying perfumes.

I gravitated toward these dusky grapes that looked nothing like the grapes I find at home. They tasted as you would imagine they would, sort of lightly floral and fleeting.

When you buy fruit in a market, you can wash and eat it right away because there are those ubiquitous fountains spewing forth clean, fresh water.

Testaccio market also had butchers, salumi and cheese shops, pasta shops, all the little things you might need. It reminded me a bit of the markets I loved in Mexico. The man at this salumi/cheese shop was very eager for us to taste his cheese. He sold us way more fresh mozzarella and salami than we had asked for, with a corresponding surprise in price, but the mozzarella knots (which he urged us not to refrigerate) were so good, we forgave him.

Just a few blocks away is the famous food store Volpetti. It’s not very large, but every conceivable space is filled with something you would like to take home. It’s worse than a pet store with puppies in the window.

I had been warned that it was very easy to rack up an enormous credit card bill, so I limited myself to two smallish chunks of cheese, a pecorino with pistachios and a similarly hard cheese studded with truffle bits, and some wild boar salami. I may or may not have finished eating everything before I went through customs. The guy who helped me clearly saw “starry-eyed tourist” written all over my forehead. I think he was disappointed I didn’t buy more. He clearly didn’t see “nonprofit worker” also tattooed on my forehead.

Even though my purchase at Volpetti was my second-biggest in Rome, I was actually pleasantly surprised by the prices there and at the market in Testaccio, even with the exchange rate. The cheeses were around 30 euros/kilo, or about 15 euros/pound. The fruit at the market was so cheap, I felt almost like a thief. (I have since heard the European Union subsidizes organic food.) In New York, most cheeses at fancy shops seem inevitably to hover around the $25/pound mark, and I don’t even want to think about how much my local farmers market charges for Italian prune plums (which really do not taste so sweet outside of Italy).

What pizza means in Rome

October 2, 2011

I am not a pizza connoisseur. I don’t really know what makes a pizza Neapolitan, or even New York-style at this point, given how saturated New York has gotten with fancy pizza. But I do love it, and even though I ate pizza probably over six times in five days, I didn’t even come close to getting sick of it. It helped that pizza has a multitude of meanings in Rome; all incarnations are delicious.

There is the famous “pizza bianca,” which looks like a rather plain and dry piece of focaccia. It was one of the first things I ate in Rome, at Forno Campo de Fiori, which is consistently named as one of the best places for pizza bianca in Rome.

Later in the trip, I had some pizza bianca from Roscioli that was a little too old and almost too much work to chew, but that first piece I had at the Forno was still warm from the oven. People often put a little prosciutto in between two pieces to make a sandwich, but when it’s fresh, it’s amazing how delicious plain food can be.

We had a piece of pizza with mushrooms and that was tasty, too, as were the cookies I bought for my sister my last morning in Rome.

And then there is pizza al taglio, or pizza by the slice, which in Rome means by weight or, if you speak Italian as poorly as I do, by a wave of your hand and a grunt or two. Pizzarium is famous for their luxurious toppings, but it’s as casual as most pizza al taglio places, a gorgeous counter with an array of pizzas and then just a couple of places to stand with big stacks of napkins. You’ll often see people eating pizza with a fork and knife, but not pizza al taglio.

Zizou found the caponata topping too sweet, but I love sticky-sweet eggplant and pinenuts. The bread was a little doughier than I would have liked, but I would happily have stuck around for a few days to try some more toppings. There was one that was snowy with layers of lardo — I regret a little not trying it.

My favorite Roman pizza, though, was the Roman or Lazio-style pizza, which features a thin and crisp dough, almost like a cracker. It can fool you into thinking you haven’t really eaten that much. We did often see Roman families sitting around, one pizza in front of each person, so maybe they feel the same way. The pizza we had at Dal Paino in the Centro Storico was tasty and certainly convenient, but the pizza we had at Pizzeria da Remo in Testaccio may have been my favorite meal of the trip.

I know a huge part of it was just the atmosphere. It was a Saturday  night and the sidewalk was packed with clusters of friends and families. It’s been discussed on Chowhound, but for one reason or another, there wasn’t a visible tourist presence. It was one of the rare moments in Rome where we felt absorbed into regular Roman life. The crowd was pretty boisterous — kids running around, people talking and laughing — but not at all impatient. The big-bellied owner pacing up and down past the sidewalk tables, almost willing people lingering over their pizzas to leave, so at least we knew the restaurant was trying to seat us.

We didn’t have time to go to a fried fish restaurant, so I insisted we try some of their fried baccala which was hot and wonderful.

But look at the pizza! We got a plain margherita, another with sausage, and then a third with zucchini blossoms and anchovies.

Look how thin the crust is! I thought it was really the perfect complement to the cheesy, salty toppings. It may be blasphemous to say this, but as a kid, I really liked the Pizza Hut Thin Crust pizzas, and these pizzas reminded me why.

We were too full to try any “ice cream to the coconut” or “coffee chocolate italian soft cheese,” but it always gratifies me when I realize non-Korean people also have serious trouble with English translations.

Pizza and beer on a Saturday night — so familiar and yet so new.

Gelato + fountains = the perfect Roman combination

September 26, 2011

For a city of such obvious, monumental accomplishments, Rome felt a little poorer than I expected, even a little backward. But the city is overflowing with riches in two important areas: gelato and fountains.

Gelato, of course, is on almost every other corner. Most of it looks terrible, cheap, and artificial. My first cone was too sticky-sweet and shallow in flavor, and to top it off, the surly woman at the register tried to charge me for a gelato my friend had already paid for.

But good gelato abounds as well. As we walked into Gelateria dei Graachi, we saw Italian men in their well-cut suits walking out, happily eating ice cream cones. The gelato there is good, still a tad too sweet, but the flavors are pure and clean. I love that almond is such a typical flavor in Rome — why isn’t that true in New York?

But my favorite gelato, the gelato I liked so much I ate it three times in five days, including twice for lunch, was at Il Gelato di Claudio Torce. (You can find a nice interview with the man himself at Katie Parla’s blog).

I tasted mora (blackberry), a sesame-almond, lemon-almond, fior di panna, crema di limoncello, and one of at least 10 different chocolate flavors at the outpost in the Spanish Steps.

When asked if you want your gelato “con panna,” you should say, “Si!” The whipped cream is held in place with a jaunty little bonus cone.

Just when I thought I couldn’t eat any more gelato, I found myself standing in front of Gelateria Corona, a garishly colored gelateria in Largo Argentina that defies expectations and serves delicately flavored granitas. I cannot get enough of almond-flavored iced desserts! If only I had had more time…

And when you are feeling sticky and thirsty from all that gelato, the fountains of Rome are not only good for photos and wishes — they are overflowing with potable water. Really.

Roman holiday

September 25, 2011

This is the quintessential image of Rome, right?

But in a lot of ways, this image captured my five days in Rome better:

What I really wish I had managed to capture on camera is the pay phone that whimsically went in and out and then back in service, all within five minutes, for no reason whatsoever.

One of the things I love most about traveling is that it challenges your assumptions. Why should the first floor be “1”? When a rental agency says there is a lift to the apartment, what would make you assume the elevator starts at street level? When you need to talk to the ticket agent at the train station, why should you be surprised to stand on an hour-long line? Really, why?

The beauty of Rome is that once you get over your befuddlement, it gives you great pasta. The food, honestly, was not the most wonderful, amazing Italian food I’ve ever had. But it was very, very good. More importantly, it was good without much effort or fanfare, reminding this New Yorker with a warped view of reality that a great meal with wine should not have to cost un braccio e una gamba. And most importantly, it nourished the kind of vacation I really needed, where nothing I saw or heard or tasted reminded me in the least of my everyday life.

To find out what I actually ate, stay tuned for more…

Don’t chew, just swallow

August 7, 2011

It doesn’t seem like a good thing to hear when you’re at a new restaurant trying new food: “Don’t chew, just swallow.”

Last weekend, a group of us decided to go check out Bab Al Yemen, a Yemeni restaurant in Bay Ridge that’s gotten a ton of  press. The advice to not chew, just swallow, accompanied a dish called aseed, essentially a mound of what seemed like uncooked dough  in a gravy-like sauce. It came with two ramekins of some other sauces that we were supposed to pour on top before eating.

To be honest, it tasted as weird as it sounds. I don’t say that lightly. Being a champion of Korean food, and a very personal one at that, has made clear to me that one person’s weird is another person’s staple. I forget sometimes, being surrounded by adventurous friends with very broad palates, how unnerving certain Korean textures and flavors can be to people who are unfamiliar with it. I know I shouldn’t, but sometimes I feel offended when Korean food is described as stinky or slimy.

So it was good for me, in a way, to be tasting something that seemed really strange, and frankly not good, to me. At least one review said we were supposed to eat it with our fingers; another mentioned a raw scallion chase. We saw no scallions, and we scooped up the dough with our spoons. Two friends did like it, but even they couldn’t finish the very generous portion we were served.

But almost everything else we ate there was the opposite of the aseed, a less jarring balance of familiar and new.

The restaurant, first of all, is not as exotic as the reviews would lead you to believe. The space is warm and golden, and there is an artistic flourish that you don’t see in most Middle Eastern restaurants in Brooklyn — the tea kettle faucet in the bathroom is conversation-worthy. But it feels more homey and cozy than sumptuous, and the men digging into the food in the front room looked as comfortable as regulars.

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The meal started with a very simple and delicious salad and soup. The salad was mainly romaine lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and a tangy vinaigrette. The soup, also plain, was earthy and delicious, like lentil soup without any lentils in it.

We ordered something called a Yemeni omelette that came puffy and custardy in a cast-iron pot — this was my favorite. I don’t know how they did it, because the whole thing was very hot and well-cooked, but the yolks were wonderfully runny.

The chicken curry on hummus was another one of my favorites. But that might have only been because it wasn’t lamb.

We had lamb in fattah b’lahm, lamb in haneez (forgot to photograph), lamb in saltah; a hunk of lamb that was served with the dough. Even the omelette was studded with minced lamb.

This is probably how others feel about Korean food: “Wow, there is a lot of kimchi!”

There were a few flavors that were still jarring, like the fenugreek foam on the hot saltah. But everything was obviously made with great care, even the complimentary hot tea, and especially the special dessert called sabaya made of 25 very thin layers of pastry. The crust was almost candy-hard. The menu lists one made with 50 layers for $55; ours had half the layers and cost around $20.

I wish we had gotten to try the “fiery red glabah chicken” mentioned in the New York Times review, but there is no way we could have eaten any more food.

Bab al Yemen isn’t going to replace my Bay Ridge favorite, Tanoreen, any time soon, but it’s a pretty ideal place for a culinary adventure — new but inviting.

How many dinner guests does it take to make patbingsoo?

August 3, 2011

After a very long hiatus, I did a test-drive Korean Sunday Dinner this weekend. I made cold soybean noodles and braised pork belly, and we all laughed and drank a lot of baekseju and bourbon. And then I decided to present dessert, shaved ice with red beans and berries and condensed milk: patbingsoo!

Except my ice shaver wasn’t cooperating. And we decided we had to get up to see what was wrong. The only one smart enough to realize bending over and staring at it was not going to help was the friend who, laughing in the corner, took this picture.

We did manage to get it to work well enough in the end, and all of us ate a small but precious mound of shaved ice. I’m facing a month of work for travel, but so excited to start cooking again in the fall.

Nostalgia tastes like a pink sno-bliz

June 11, 2011

Is nostalgia nostalgia if you yearn for a past that isn’t your past?

From the moment you pull up to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz on Tchoupitoulas Street, you can tell that this famous sno-ball stand prides itself on its history. From the outside, it’s a whitewashed shack of a building. There’s a long bench along the wall and above that bench, two-foot high numbers indicating how long it’s been open, repainted every year in a bright pink-red.

It takes a while to see what’s inside because the line moves very slowly, but it’s worth the wait. Inside, the space is hot and fairly small, but everyone is unfailingly cheerful. The walls are plastered with photos and yellowing newspaper articles about Mary and Ernest Hansen, the original owners, and photos of happy customers through the years. Where there are no photos or articles, there are signs proclaiming, “There are no short cuts to quality,” as well a couple devout expressions of faith. In front, by the counter, is the famous ice-shaving machine, invented and patented by Ernest Hansen, to create a more sanitary sno-ball than others were selling in the 1930s.

One person mans the ice machine, another takes your money, and the last person carefully drizzles on the homemade syrup. It’s a slow, congenial operation. The man working the ice machine hands over the cup when it’s half full. Then the person in charge of the flavors pours on the syrup, making sure every last particle of ice soaks up some ungodly color, and then hands it back to the ice man, who tops it off so that the ice is twice as high as the cup. It then goes back to the syrup person who again is intent on making sure that syrup soaks through all the ice, oblivious to the syrup dripping all over her hand and the counter, though she will stop and wipe the counter clean after each order. Some of the flavors need to be refrigerated, which necessitates a step back to an ancient refrigerator. If there is a special request, like ice cream in the middle for a hot rod, or condensed milk and/or marshmallow fluff on top, that’s yet another step.

This is the opposite of fast food.

The flavors are made fresh everyday by Ashley Hansen, the current owner, just the way her grandmother did. There are the kind of flavors you’d expect, like blueberry and strawberry, but there’s a whole category of flavors prefixed with “cream of” that have gorgeous pastel hues. There’s cream of chocolate, cream of strawberry, even cream of ice cream, but the most popular is cream of nectar, which is a bright pink, a tinge more orange than Pepto-Bismol. And then there are “fancy flavors” like anise, ginger, and Satsuma, but these flavors are scrawled on a piece of white paper in different marker colors, and there are no promises that they are organic or all-natural. These are the kind of flavors that saturate your tongue until it turns a deep and satisfyingly orange, green or blue color.

You end up with something that looks craggy and uneven, as fantastic as the surface of a far-flung, sugar-spun outerspace world. But the sno-ball, the stand, the happy people waiting patiently in line, and the happy people slowly serving them evoke a deeply familiar feeling. You don’t have to grow up in New Orleans to remember what it feels like to have something sticky and sweet melting in your hand, to be hot but not care, and to look at something extremely fake in color and be entranced.

The best part? The sugary-sweet, ice-cold treat tastes as good as you remember. The ice is so cold, it tempers the sweetness of the flavors and transforms any cream you add, like condensed milk or marshmallow fluff, into something firmer, gooier, and more delicious. It’s more refreshing than ice cream would be in that heat. As their sign proclaims, you really can air-condition your tummy.

If you want to hear more about its history, pre and post-Katrina, you should hear it from the horse’s mouth. A summary of the Southern Foodways Alliance interview of Ashley Hansen and her father Gerard is here, with a full transcript that’s well worth reading.